Pennsylvania’s deer season began Monday last week, opening day is sort of the high-water mark for hunter activity in the state. Last year was the first year I’ve ever missed going out to hunt on opening day. I sat at work most of the day in disbelief- I wasn’t out there so it wasn’t happening- or an out of sight, out of mind sort of thing. It turned out to be a very warm, damp day so I didn’t miss much. This year the kids and I missed the early youth rifle season that coincides with part of the state’s inline muzzleloader season, both seasons are antlerless deer only. That is generally the season I try to get them out in since it’s warmer, the deer aren’t as spooky and still come out in daylight hours to feed and offer those longer standstill, broadside shots while feeding out in the open. This year the kids would be hunting the regular rifle season, which did provide an upside… snow.
This year reminded me of deer seasons I remember as a teenager. That meant loading up the weekend after Thanksgiving and driving 200 miles into the northwest corner of the state, always going through the Allegheny National Forest and watching the natural edges of any wood-line for deer. I remember seeing at least a dozen to 3 dozen deer on the ride up but as of late, the numbers never top a dozen- this year we saw two roadkills. I know this may sound weird as a guy that likes to spend most of my time running dogs in the woods, but I do miss the deer population Pennsylvania use to have. It was a time when spikes and fork-horns weren’t called scrubs, the term antler restrictions meant tying the antlers off on the front of the roof rack, the acronym BBD (big buck down) didn’t exist and deer were simply just shot or harvested, none found themselves having “the smack laid down” on them and the guys doing it on TV were presenting an outdoor show, not a 30 minute infomercial. At that time the rat race for the biggest head gear was very mild and a orange coat with a knife, drag rope and a few extra shells in the pockets, decent boots and a sighted-in rifle was all that was needed. Add a thermos and a sandwich and you were good for the day.
Like many times in years past as we came to the Snow Shoe exit on interstate 80 the snow appeared to of never lost its foothold from there on out. As we eventually went north the snow just got deeper. It was the first time making that kind of trip in the dad role. Answering questions, telling stories and pulling the wallet out at the drive-thru’s. It brought back memories of being their age (albeit a tad older) and in those shoes when all seems right with the world, not having much of anything to worry about. A subtle reminder of how peace of mind and innocence are priceless. Once we got to our interstate exit it seemed as though we arrived at the farm in no time.
At the family’s jersey cow farm there was about 6″ of heavy snow, the result of a 40 degree day on 14″ of powder from the day before. We unloaded most of our stuff, said our hello’s, loaded a bail of hay in the bed of the truck and then headed across the road to verify both the rifles and shooters were still on target. Along with us came my dad and uncle who were up the day before turkey hunting and setting up the blind for one of the kids and the raised condo stand for the other. Also there was our cousin Lee, who with his brother, run the farm just as their father did with his brother, their uncle. Lee had his younger hunting partner with him who has been doubling as both hunting partner and his daughter’s boyfriend for the last few years. Targets were setup at 50 and 100 yards, cardboard 2′ circles each with a 2″ square of black duct tape in the center. I took the first shot with my 243 that I modified with a youth stock that can be attached to a heavier duty tripod and videohead to make sure it was still on. The 100gr reload center-punched the 100 yard target’s 2″ square. My nine year old who’d be using the gun was settled in next. With five older shooters present all watching with potentially their own shooting tips to offer up, I had her stay with the 50 yard target. At nine and eleven years of age, the only technique I really ever remind them to do is slowly squeeze the trigger tighter and tighter while on target, the gun should “surprise” you when it does fire. Her three shots were all in the square, two of them .5″ apart with the first an inch from the others.
My eleven year old settled in next with a borrowed .223, kindly lent to her by my uncle there hunting with us. She had no tripod or bipod attached to the gun but perched the stainless Ruger on top of the tripod for her turn. Frankly I don’t remember how she did beyond she took three or four shots that resulted in everyone being satisfied with it. Since she was hunting with my dad the following morning I had him sit beside her during her shooting so they were on the same page. Most of the older shooters shot their rifles and the targets were moved into pistol range. I’d brought a Ruger SR22 pistol I’d shot very little and we had two clips running at the same time that were either being loaded back up or emptied for the next ten minutes or so. After that there was a few volleys of .45 acp by the adults. All the while the kids were 20 yards directly behind working on a snowman.
With everyone confident in their shooting irons, we took a ride up the hill to check out where we’d be hunting. My younger daughter and I would be in a blind off the edge off and old orchard, just into a nearby wood line watching the gully below. Little has changed here in the last 40+ years, the deer still use the same travel/escape routes year after year. The “scouting” took place decades ago with those initial findings being confirmed time and time again. When we got in the ground blind we’d decided that we’d only setup in there if it was raining. With a folding chair, tripod and it’s peculiar window layout, we didn’t think we could get on target as easily as sitting on the ground outside. We hiked back out through the old orchard, climbed the cattle gate and walked down the tractor road back to the farmhouse.
My great aunt and uncle use to live a few houses down the road (still on the farm acreage) in a three bedroom home. When us cousins use to go up for deer season we’d pack into their house and spend ‘deersmas’ eve visiting with them and their kids and their kid’s kids. The hospitality shares in some similarity with what you may find on the Robertson’s Duck Dynasty… food, family stories, and genuine family tranquility. Perhaps you could liken my great aunt to ‘Miss Kay’ (however sans the bizarre food- squirrel brains etc.). Her hospitality and gentle demeanor seem limitless, you always leave feeling privileged to call her kin (and stuffed). Now years after his passing my aunt and uncle have since moved into the original farmhouse of my great grandfather’s, which he lived in until he died in his early 90s, for really no greater reason than to ensure its upkeep. We’re a little more spread out among the bigger house now but still gravitate towards the kitchen table or a televised football game.
Evidently I’d snored, I heard about it at 5:30am the next morning over coffee, that’s a new development and in my defense I was fighting a head cold. I also heard about my eleven year old waking my dad up in his room at 1am and telling him she tried but she just could not fall back asleep after a trip to the bathroom. I’m glad I got to miss all that. After a light breakfast we suited up and began our hike up the hill. Our group of four broke apart into two’s at the cattle gate. My nine year old and I got over it as my dad and eleven year old continued onto their stand. We walked down in through the orchard and settled in on the ground beside our blind and began to wait. The first shot we heard was at 7am off in the distance. My uncle was walking into his spot on the other side of the flat so we watched that direction more than any other. At around 7:20am we heard a shot from over there.
I just waited. Not too long after that a lone doe came up from that direction, in no hurry. It stopped down below us, partially out of sight. I used that moment to get a knee up for my daughter to sit on and get her ready. It was probably about 90 yards straight out in front and when it began walking again it veered off going mostly right to left but angled our direction slightly. In our movement and whispers she’d stopped once or twice, ears up to which we copied. When she began walking again we had to steadily slide to our right so the gun muzzle would follow the deer going left. My daughter was still collected but she was getting a anxious about the doe not stopping. About maxed out in our ability to swing the gun without having to really skooch and reset ourselves I let out a “Mleh.” She stopped solid thankfully not pinning where it came from.
Safety clicked off.
“Are you on it?!”
“Slowly squeeze that trigger! Don’t yank…” the rifle barked and I saw the deer react.
“You hit it!”
The deer staggered for a step or two to it’s right before falling on it’s side. It made one attempt to get onto its belly to try and get back up again but didn’t come close. It was over that quick. A hug and high-five and then we waited a few minutes to let things settle. We walked down to the deer and tagged it, she’d hit it in the lower neck about a third of the way in. With the size of the pool of blood it appeared she’d hit a major artery. It wasn’t the ideal behind-the-shoulder shot (where we repeatedly went over to hold) but at 80 yards in low light through the woods with a 4x scope I was satisfied, it was 7:35am. After tagging headed back up to our perch to send a message over to dad and older daughter that we had one down. They were over 20 minutes later and deer was then gutted (all ready tagged) and left while I walked both kids down to the farmhouse to warmup and recharge.
That was the extent of my nine year old’s hunting for the day. My oldest would hunt for an additional three hours or so but would only see a group of five or six deer running along a field edge that was out beyond 400 yards. Earlier in the morning her and my dad caught a glimpse of one ‘flag’ that somebody had bumped somewhere out beyond them. Next year she’ll be old enough to carry her own rifle. I’ve wondered what that may end up being. I tend to think CZ’s 527 Carbine or a secondhand Browning A-bolt (not the new $800+ X-Bolts… good grief). Time will tell, it’s going to have to be 6.5 pounds or less. The day came to a close, we ate another big meal, said are goodbyes and departed. The ride home always goes fast.
I usually process my own deer but the weather forecast that had temps in the high 40’s had me swinging by a local processor. With a family size of soon to be seven, we go through a lot of burger, everything but the backstrap tenderloins and fish tenderloins were ground up and mixed with 10% pork sausage (to add some fat so it won’t cook out dry). All in all 53 pounds of meat, her request for the first pack of burger?… nachos.